UCF’s Coastal & Estuarine Ecology Laboratory (CEELAB) continues to grow and expand its influence with an investment from Disney and a research project attracting top science talent from across the U.S.

The achievement came in the form of $100,000 to Pegasus Professor of Biology Linda Walters and integrative coastal biology doctoral student Katherine Harris ’18 through Disney’s unique conservation funding proposal model. Only organizations with at least five years of previous funding were eligible for the grant this year, Walters says.

This Disney award will enable Walters, Harris and lab members to explore mangrove encroachment on oyster reefs, the longevity of biodegradable materials used for coastal restoration and the prospect of virtual reality as a medium to engage community members who don’t have access to seeing restored habitats on their own.

CEELAB was one of 25 nonprofit organizations selected by the Disney Conservation Fund for their work protecting biodiversity. Selected programs from a global pool of applicants demonstrated “significant impact to date and inspiring future plans,” according to Disney.

Proposals are focused on three pillars of impact: conservation, restoration and community engagement/education. CEELAB also met the criteria that selected organizations pursue “new, exciting, and yet untested” ideas in conservation.

Walters says the momentum hasn’t slowed heading into the future. The achievement came to fruition this summer through Walters’ second time operating a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) site. The REU is a competitive award from the U.S. National Science Foundation to connect undergraduate students who are underrepresented in STEM with an immersive first research experience. Associate Professor Kate Mansfield is the co-principal investigator on the REU site award.

The title of this REU was Conservation, Restoration and Communication, and there were 10 faculty mentors representing many disciplines of biology and engineering. Visiting students came from as far as Hawaii and as close as Florida’s Valencia College. Research topics for these students in the summer ranged from seagrass genetics to eDNA of red tide to amphibian diseases to pollinator ecology in an urban setting.

Participants in the REU included UCF undergraduate student Angie Tasayco and Goldsboro Elementary School teacher Mary Lynn Hess.

Walters received supplemental funding for Hess to train alongside the students and faculty mentors with the goal of providing Hess’ future students with a more in-depth understanding of the research process and inspire interest in STEM careers.

While CEELAB has tackled these types of issues for 25 years now, there will never be a shortage of work to be done.

“There are so many conservation questions that need to be addressed,” Walters says. “So even as we study the most urgent current conservation issues to be ready for future crises, we also need to be training the next generation of conservation researchers and the generation after that through our local educators.”